The House of the Whispering Pines by Anna Katharine Green
Book Four. What the Pines Whispered
XXXI. "Were Her Hands Crossed Then?"
Threescore and ten I can remember well: Within the volume of which time, I have seen Hours dreadful, and things strange; but this sore night Hath trifled former knowledge. Macbeth.
I shall say nothing about myself at this juncture. That will come later. I have something of quite different purport to relate.
When I left the court-room with the other witnesses, I noticed a man standing near the district attorney. He was a very plain man--with no especial claims to attention, that I could see, yet I looked at him longer than I did at any one else, and turned and looked at him again as I passed through the doorway.
Afterward I heard that he was Sweetwater, the detective from New York who had had so much to do in unearthing the testimony against Arthur,--testimony which in the light of this morning's revelations, had taken on quite a new aspect, as he was doubtless the first to acknowledge. It was the curious blending of professional disappointment and a personal and characteristic appreciation of the surprising situation, which made me observe him, I suppose. Certainly my heart and mind were full enough not to waste looks on a commonplace stranger unless there had been some such overpowering reason.
I left him still talking to Mr. Fox, and later received this account of the interview which followed between them and Dr. Perry.
"Is this girl telling the truth?" asked District Attorney Fox, as soon as the three were closeted and each could speak his own mind. "Doctor, what do you think?"
"I do not question her veracity in the least. A woman who for purely moral reasons could defy pain and risk the loss of a beauty universally acknowledged as transcendent, would never stoop to falsehood even in her desire to save a brother's life. I have every confidence in her. Fox, and I think you may safely have the same."
"You believe that she burnt herself--intentionally?"
"I wouldn't disbelieve it--you may think me sentimental; I knew and loved her father--for any fortune you might name."
"Say that you never knew her father; say that you had no more interest in the girl or the case, than the jurors have? What then---?
"I should believe her for humanity's sake; for the sake of the happiness it gives one to find something true and strong in this sordid work-a-day world--a jewel in a dust-heap. Oh, I'm a sentimentalist, I acknowledge."
Mr. Fox turned to Sweetwater. "And you?"
"Mr. Fox, have you those tongs?"
"Yes, I forgot; they were brought to my office, with the other exhibits. I attached no importance to them, and you will probably find them just where I thrust them into the box marked 'Cumb.'"
They were in the district attorney's office, and Sweetwater at once rose and brought forward the tongs.
"There is my answer," he said pointing significantly at one of the legs.
The district attorney turned pale, and motioned Sweetwater to carry them back. He sat silent for a moment, and then showed that he was a man.
"Miss Cumberland has my respect," said he.
Sweetwater came back to his place.
Dr. Perry waited.
Finally Mr. Fox turned to him and put the anticipated question:
"You are satisfied with your autopsy? Miss Cumberland's death was due to strangulation and not to the poison she took?"
"That was what I swore to, and what I should have to swear to again if you placed me back on the stand. The poison, taken with her great excitement, robbed her of consciousness, but there was too little of it, or it was too old and weakened to cause death. She would probably have revived, in time; possibly did revive. But the clutch of those fingers was fatal; she could not survive it. It costs me more than you can ever understand to say this, but questions like yours must be answered. I should not be an honest man otherwise."
Sweetwater made a movement. Mr. Fox turned and looked at him critically.
"Speak out," said he.
But Sweetwater had nothing to say.
Neither had Dr. Perry. The oppression of an unsolved problem, involving lives of whose value each formed a different estimate, was upon them all; possibly heaviest upon the district attorney, the most serious portion of whose work lay still before him.
To the relief of all, Carmel was physically stronger than we expected when she came to retake the stand in the afternoon. But she had lost a little of her courage. Her expectation of clearing her brother at a word had left her, and with it the excitation of hope. Yet she made a noble picture as she sat there, meeting, without a blush, but with an air of sweet humility impossible to describe, the curious, all-devouring glances of the multitude, some of them anxious to repeat the experience of the morning; some of them new to the court, to her, and the cause for which she stood.
Mr. Fox kept nobody waiting. With a gentleness such as he seldom showed to any witness for the defence, he resumed his cross-examination by propounding the following question:
"Miss Cumberland, in your account of the final interview you had with your sister, you alluded to a story you had once read together. Will you tell us the name of this story?"
"It was called 'A Legend of Francis the First.' It was not a novel, but a little tale she found in some old magazine. It had a great effect upon us; I have never forgotten it."
"Can you relate this tale to us in a few words?"
"I will try. It was very simple; it merely told how a young girl marred her beauty to escape the attentions of the great king, and what respect he always showed her after that, even calling her sister."
Was the thrill in her voice or in my own heart, or in the story--emphasised as it was by her undeniable attempt upon her own beauty? As that last word fell so softly, yet with such tender suggestion, a sensation of sympathy passed between us for the first time; and I knew, from the purity of her look and the fearlessness of this covert appeal to one she could not address openly, that the doubts I had cherished of her up to this very moment were an outrage and that were it possible or seemly, I should be bowed down in the dust at her feet--in reality, as I was in spirit.
Others may have shared my feeling; for the glances which flew from her face to mine were laden with an appreciation of the situation, which for the moment drove the prisoner from the minds of all, and centred attention on this tragedy of souls, bared in so cruel a way to the curiosity of the crowd. I could not bear it. The triumph of my heart battled with the shame of my fault, and I might have been tempted into some act of manifest imprudence, if Mr. Fox had not cut my misery short by recalling attention to the witness, with a question of the most vital importance.
"While you were holding your sister's hands in what you supposed to be her final moments, did you observe whether or not she still wore on her finger the curious ring given her by Mr. Ranelagh, and known as her engagement ring?"
"Yes--I not only saw it, but felt it. It was the only one she wore on her left hand."
The district attorney paused. This was an admission unexpected, perhaps, by himself, which it was desirable to have sink into the minds of the jury. The ring had not been removed by Adelaide herself; it was still on her finger as the last hour drew nigh. An awful fact, if established--telling seriously against Arthur. Involuntarily I glanced his way. He was looking at me. The mutual glance struck fire. What I thought, he thought--but possibly with a difference. The moment was surcharged with emotion for all but the witness herself. She was calm; perhaps she did not understand the significance of the occasion.
Mr. Fox pressed his advantage.
"And when you rose from the lounge and crossed your sister's hands?"
"It was still there; I put that hand uppermost."
"And left the ring on?"
"Oh, yes--oh, yes." Her whole attitude and face were full of protest.
"So that, to the best of your belief, it was still on your sister's finger when you left the room?"
"Certainly, sir, certainly."
There was alarm in her tone now, she was beginning to see that her testimony was not as entirely helpful to Arthur as she had been led to expect. In her helplessness, she cast a glance of entreaty at her brother's counsel. But he was busily occupied with pencil and paper, and she received no encouragement unless it was from his studiously composed manner and general air of unconcern. She did not know--nor did I know then--what uneasiness such an air may cover.
Mr. Fox had followed her glances, and perhaps understood his adversary better than she did; for he drew himself up with an appearance of satisfaction as he asked very quietly:
"What material did you use in lighting the fire on the club-house hearth?"
"Wood from the box, and a little kindling I found there."
"How large was this kindling?"
"Not very large; some few stray pieces of finer wood I picked out from she rest."
"And how did you light these?"
"With some scraps of paper I brought in my bag?"
"Oh--you brought scraps?"
"Yes. I had seen the box, seen the wood, but knew the wood would not kindle without paper. So I brought some."
"Did the fire light quickly?"
"Not very quickly."
"You had trouble with it?"
"Yes, sir. But I made it burn at last."
"Are you in the habit of kindling fires in your own home?"
"Yes, on the hearth."
"You understand them?"
"I have always found it a very simple matter, if you have paper and enough kindling."
"And the draught is good."
"Wasn't the draught good at the club-house?"
"Not at first."
"Oh--not at first. When did you see a change?"
"When the note I was trying to burn flew up the chimney."
"I see. Was that after or before the door opened?"
"Did the opening of this door alter the temperature of the room?"
"I cannot say; I felt neither heat nor cold at any time."
"Didn't you feel the icy cold when you opened the dressing-closet window to throw out the phial?"
"I don't remember."
"Wouldn't you remember if you had?"
"I cannot say."
Can you say whether you noticed any especial chill in the hall when you went out to telephone?"
"My teeth were chattering but--"
"Had they chattered before?"
"They may have. I only noticed it then; but--"
"The facts, Miss Cumberland. Your teeth chattered while you were passing through the hall. Did this keep up after you entered the room where you found the telephone?"
"I don't remember; I was almost insensible."
"You don't remember that they did?"
"But you do remember having shut the door behind you?"
An open window in the hall! That was what he was trying to prove--open at this time. From the expression of such faces of the jury as I could see, I think he had proved it. The next point he made was in the same line. Had she, in all the time she was in the building, heard any noises she could not account for?
"Yes, many times."
"Can you describe these noises?"
"No; they were of all kinds. The pines sighed continually; I knew it was the pines, but I had to listen. Once I heard a rushing sound--it was when the pines stopped swaying for an instant--but I don't know what it was. It was all very dreadful."
"Was this rushing sound such as a window might make on being opened?"
"Possibly. I didn't think of it at the time, but it might have been."
"From what direction did it come?"
"Back of me, for I turned my head about."
"Where were you at the time?"
"At the hearth. It was before Adelaide came in."
"A near sound, or a far?"
"Far, but I cannot locate it--indeed, I cannot. I forgot it in a moment."
"But you remember it now?"
"And cannot you remember now any other noises than those you speak of? That time you stepped into the hall--when your teeth chattered, you know--did you hear nothing then but the sighing of the pines?"
She looked startled. Her hands went up and one of them clutched at her throat, then they fell, and slowly--carefully--like one feeling his way--she answered:
"I had forgotten. I did hear something--a sound in one of the doorways. It was very faint--a sigh--a--a--I don't know what. It conveyed nothing to me then, and not much now. But you asked, and I have answered."
"You have done right, Miss Cumberland. The jury ought to know these facts. Was it a human sigh?"
"It wasn't the sigh of the pines."
"And you heard it in one of the doorways? Which doorway?"
"The one opposite the room in which I left my sister."
"The doorway to the large hall?"
Oh, the sinister memories! The moments which I myself had spent there--after this time of her passing through the hall, thank God!--but not long after. And some one had been there before me! Was it Arthur? I hardly had the courage to interrogate his face, but when I did, I, like every one else who looked that way, met nothing but the quietude of a fully composed man. There was nothing to be learned from him now; the hour for self-betrayal was past. I began to have a hideous doubt.
Carmel being innocent, who could be guilty but he. I knew of no one. The misery under which I had suffered was only lightened, not removed. We were still to see evil days. The prosecution would prove its case, and--But there was Mr. Moffat. I must not reckon without Moffat. He had sprung one surprise. Was he not capable of springing another? Relieved, I fixed my mind again upon the proceedings. What was Mr. Fox asking her now?
"Miss Cumberland, are you ready to swear that you did not hear a step at that time?"
"Or see a face?"
"That you only heard a sigh?"
"A sigh, or something like one."
"Which made you stop--"
"No, I did not stop."
"You went right on?"
"Entering the telephone room?"
"The door of which you shut?"
"No, not intentionally."
"Did you shut that door yourself?"
"I do not know. I must have but I--"
"Never mind explanations. You do not know whether you shut it, or whether some one else shut it?"
"I do not."
The words fell weightily. They seemed to strike every heart.
"Miss Cumberland, you have said that you telephoned for the police."
"I telephoned to central."
"Yes, for help."
"You were some minutes doing this, you say?"
"I have reason to think so, but I don't know definitely. The candle seemed shorter when I went out than when I came in."
"Are you sure you telephoned for help?"
"Help was what I wanted--help for my sister. I do not remember my words."
"And then you left the building?"
"After going for my little bag."
"Did you see any one then?"
"Hear any one?"
"Did you see your sister again?"
"I have said that I just glanced at the couch."
"Were the pillows there?"
"Just as you had left them?"
"I have said that I could not tell."
"Wouldn't you know if they had been disturbed?"
"No, sir--not from the look I gave them."
"Then they might have been disturbed--might even have been rearranged---without your knowing it?"
"Miss Cumberland, when you left the building, did you leave it alone?"
"Was the moon shining?"
"No, it was snowing."
"Did the moon shine when you went to throw the phial out of the window?"
"Yes, very brightly."
"Bright enough for you to see the links?"
"I didn't look at the links."
"Where were you looking?"
"When you threw the phial out?"
"What was there behind you?"
"A dead sister." Oh, the indescribable tone!
"Forgive me, Miss Cumberland, I do not want to trouble you, but was there not something or some one in the adjoining room besides your dead sister, to make you look back?"
"I saw no one. But I looked back--I do not know why."
"And didn't you turn at all?"
"I do not think so."
"You threw the phial out without looking?"
"How do you know you threw it out?"
"I felt it slip from my hand."
"Over the window ledge. I had pulled the window open before I turned my head. I had only to feel for the sill. When I touched its edge, I opened my fingers."
Triumph for the defence. Cross-examination on this point had only served to elucidate a mysterious fact. The position of the phial, caught in the vines, was accounted for in a very natural manner.
Mr. Fox shifted his inquiries.
"You have said that you wore a hat and coat of your brother's in coming to the club-house? Did you keep these articles on?"
"No; I left them in the lower hall."
"Where in the lower hall?"
"On the rack there."
"Was your candle lit?"
"Not then, sir."
"Yet you found the rack?"
"I felt for it. I knew where it was."
"When did you light the candle?"
"After I hung up the coat."
"And when you came down? Did you have the candle then?"
"Yes, for a while. But I didn't have any light when I went for the coat and hat. I remember feeling all along the wall. I don't know what I did with the candlestick or the candle. I had them on the stairs; I didn't have them when I put on the coat and hat."
I knew what she did with them. She flung them out of her hand upon the marble floor. Should I ever forget the darkness swallowing up that face of mental horror and physical suffering.
"Miss Cumberland, you are sure about having telephoned for help, and that you mentioned The Whispering Pines in doing so?"
"Quite sure." Oh, what weariness was creeping into her voice!
"Then, of course, you left the door unlocked when you went out of the building?"
"No--no, I didn't. I had the key and I locked it. But I didn't realise this till I went to untie my horse; then I found the keys in my hand. But I didn't go back."
"Do you mean that you didn't know you locked the door?"
"I don't remember whether I knew or not at the time. I do remember being surprised and a little frightened when I saw the keys. But I didn't go back."
"Yet you had telephoned for the police?"
"And then locked them out?"
"I didn't care--I didn't care."
An infinite number of questions followed. The poor child was near fainting, but bore up wonderfully notwithstanding, contradicting herself but seldom; and then only from lack of understanding the question, or from sheer fatigue. Mr. Fox was considerate, and Mr. Moffat interrupted but seldom. All could see that this noble-hearted girl, this heroine of all hearts was trying to tell the truth, and sympathy was with her, even that of the prosecution. But certain facts had to be brought out, among them the blowing off of her hat on that hurried drive home through the ever thickening snow-storm--a fact easily accounted for, when one considered the thick coils of hair over which it had been drawn.
The circumstances connected with her arrival at the house were all carefully sifted, but nothing new came up, nor was her credibility as a witness shaken. The prosecution had lost much by this witness, but it had also gained. No doubt now remained that the ring was still on the victim's hand when she succumbed to the effects of the poison; and the possibility of another presence in the house during the fateful interview just recorded, had been strengthened, rather than lessened, by Carmel' s hesitating admissions. And so the question hung poised, and I was expecting to see her dismissed from the stand, when the district attorney settled himself again into his accustomed attitude of inquiry, and launched this new question:
"When you went into the stable to unharness your horse, what did you do with the little bag you carried?"
"I took it out of the cutter."
"Set it down somewhere."
"Was there anything in the bag?"
"Not now. I had left the tongs at the club-house, and the paper I had burned. I took nothing else."
"How about the candlestick?"
"That I carried in one of the pockets of my coat. That I left, too."
"Was that all you carried in your pockets?"
"Yes--the candlestick and the candle. The candlestick on one side and the candle on the other."
"And these you did not have on your return?"
"No, I left both."
"So that your pockets were empty--entirely empty--when you drove into your own gate?"
"Yes, sir, so far as I know. I never looked into them."
"And felt nothing there?"
"Took nothing out?"
"Then or when you unharnessed your horse, or afterward, as you passed back to the house?"
"What path did you take in returning to the house?"
"There is only one."
"Did you walk straight through it?"
"As straight as I could. It was snowing heavily, and I was dizzy and felt strange, I may have zigzagged a little."
"Did you zigzag enough to go back of the stable?"
"You are sure that you did not wander in back of the stable?"
"As sure as I can be of anything."
"Miss Cumberland, I have but a few more questions to ask. Will you look at this portion of a broken bottle?"
"I see it, sir."
"Will you take it in your hand and examine it carefully?"
She reached out her hand; it was trembling visibly and her face expressed a deep distress, but she took the piece of broken bottle and looked at it before passing it back.
"Miss Cumberland, did you ever see that bit of broken glass before?"
She shook her head. Then she cast a quick look at her brother, and seemed to gain an instantaneous courage.
"No," said she. "I may have seen a whole bottle like that, at some time in the club-house, but I have no memory of this broken end--none at all."
"I am obliged to you, Miss Cumberland. I will trouble you no more to-day."
Then he threw up his head and smiled a slow, sarcastic smile at Mr. Moffat.